Joan Didion ‘On Self-Respect’

Once in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. … I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect. – Joan Didion, On Self Respect

Have not we all misplaced it, at one time or another? Joan Didion is, like many essayists, at her best when she is talking about herself. There is a sense of dread throughout much of her work. At times she is the sour candy of the literary world – something against the normal palate but delicious nevertheless. Essayist, no less than anyone else, hide who they are. They surely must. Yet the best, and Didion is among the very best, give the impression of complete honesty. This is a daring start to an essay – to say that you disliked yourself – but what follows that is startling:

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception.

It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

Only because she is honest do we trust her enough to listen her advice. Anyone who has been younger than they are now will know of times when everything that they thought was important fell apart, and it felt like everything that mattered to them was crumbling away. (It probably was not.) At this point you did one of two things: you either fell apart, or learnt to accept what happened as a consequence of your choices.

This is not about loving yourself, nor is it some romantic self-esteem bandwagon that says your feelings are all that matter about what happens in life. On the contrary, except in that you respect yourself, feelings do not matter at all. Treat yourself as you deserve. Tell yourself what really happened. And never lie to yourself. You cannot fool yourself and you will always find yourself out. Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov says:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.

Therefore, do not praise yourself beyond cause, or criticise yourself beyond justice. Take the middle way and learn to respect yourself. There are dislikable people in this world, people we curse and swear at, and straight out enemies that we nevertheless grant respect. If we grant such respect to enemies, how much more readily we should grant respect to ourselves.

Experience is a great teacher, but she has so expensive fees, goes a saying. Didion has had some expensive lessons in life that she boxes up in beautiful prose and gives away. That boxing is rather perfect. Look again at the rhythm of that paragraph:

It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

It starts with, “It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price.” This metaphor of price is repeated in the final sentence. These sentences sandwich a long list between them. The contrast in length of sentences creates pattern, and culminates in the short clauses in parallel structure, again using repetition for effect (“play” appears twice) and contrasting with something different (“odds”) . Good prose, as always, is more like music than magic.

It is hard to find something of hers not to recommend. I am sure we will return to her again, but for the moment I hope you enjoyed the post and do take a glance at the excellent “On Self-Respect” where you can find it.

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